Water tanks at the UCSC campus. (Irene Reti / Contributed)

Making meaning of ‘the empty year’

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.


Now What?

What do we make of a year like 2020?

It’s all so close and raw and personal, it’s kind of hard to know where to begin. In Santa Cruz, oral historians are starting by documenting first-hand accounts of 22 students and staff at the University of California there.

Their project, “The Empty Year,” reflects the individuality of experience in a college community weathering a year-long series of crises — the pandemic and renewed fights for racial justice as well as local labor strife and widespread wildfires that came, at one point, within a mile of UC Santa Cruz itself. 

There are stories of a home destroyed by fire and the haunting image of embers suspended in the air. About missing dancing and losing a sense of choreography in life. About transferring across the country in the middle of a pandemic and reveling in the beach and fresh air at a new home.

But much of what the historians focus on is how all of these stories together begin to answer questions about an entire university community — how 2020 has changed it and how the year redefined the whole notion of what, and where, community even is. 

“Twenty-two individual interviews may not be huge by oral history collections standards, but even our small composite spanned and connected disparate counties and communities, coasts and countries, illustrating, once again, the paradoxical interconnectedness of this time,” the project’s authors wrote. 

“These stories travel from Santa Cruz to San Diego, the Chesapeake to Manhattan, and the U.S. to Mexico to Pakistan to Japan. Along the way, they collectively address a question that may seem strange at first: our project wasn’t just asking how is the UCSC community (e.g. what have our experiences been), but where is the UCSC community, and what is the UCSC community? Where are its boundaries? What does it stand for once it becomes a remote concept?”

Nick Ibarra, who works with us at our partner Lookout Santa Cruz, recently talked with the project’s authors — Irene Reti, who directs UCSC’s Regional History Project, and Cameron Vanderscoff, an oral historian based in New York and a UCSC alum.

He asked them to explain the meaning of their project’s title:

“Empty can mean negative, it can mean hollow, it can mean you’re devoid of something, you’ve lost something,” Vanderscoff said. “But it can also be something that’s waiting to be filled with meaning. That seemed to fit 2020.

“It was a title that didn’t downplay the heaviness of the year, and the darkness of the year and the challenge of the year for many, but also didn’t leave it in that place and asked, what kind of meaning do we as a community now want to put there?”

+ Read Nick’s full interview with “The Empty Year” authors

— Sara Hebel

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Hidden Debts

We’ve written before about “stranded credits” — the way unpaid bills can keep people from getting their transcripts

This week, the Hechinger Report digs into another aspect of that story: public colleges using for-profit debt collectors to retrieve that money, adding 30 to 40 percent to the bill in the process. The story, by Meredith Kolodner, is the latest in a series Hechinger has done called the Hidden Debt Trap, looking at all the different types of student debt we rarely talk about. She found that public colleges have sent hundreds of thousands of students to private debt collectors, totaling more than $500 million.

  • Missouri State University sends about 1,100 students to debt collection agencies each year.
  • Florida allows private debt collectors to add 20 to 25 percent to the original bill.
  • In California, debt collectors for the community colleges are allowed to add 39 percent.
  • At some Kentucky colleges, unpaid bills can grow by 40 percent.

Across the country, many colleges do more than just send these bills to collections. They also withhold transcripts or keep students from re-enrolling until the balance is paid off.

With this issue getting more attention, will more states follow California’s lead? State law there now prohibits colleges from withholding transcripts as a way to collect unpaid bills.

The Powers of Collaboration

Sara will be speaking next week at the annual conference of the Institute for Nonprofit News about how new models like Open Campus enrich journalism and expand revenue by putting collaboration at the center.

Among the other participants in the virtual session are our partners at Mississippi Today and Chalkbeat. Join us for the conversation on Thursday, June 10, at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

It’s free to attend, thanks to some of INN’s sponsors. Sign up here and check out the full program for the two-day event: INN Days: Accelerating the future of news.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In The Job: “This green energy company creates high-paying jobs. Why can’t it fill them?”

In First Gen: “The class of 2020 wants to redo its grab-and-go graduation”

In Santa Cruz: “Wistful over the lost year, this U. of California senior is on a graduation serenade mission”

In Colorado: “MSU Denver launches support for some of its lowest-income students”

Spotlight

The Rise of Remote Work May Reshape College Towns. Here’s How Those Campuses Are Wooing Transplants.

Universities are luring remote staff at corporations to move from urban hubs to college towns, as companies look to continue flexible work arrangements for their employees.

Young People Are Running from Mississippi. Mississippi Today Is Digging Into It.

Mississippi was one of just three U.S. states to lose population over the past 10 years. More and more, other states reap the benefits of our minds, our energy, our passion. A long-term reporting project called NextGen Mississippi will focus on why people are deciding to leave.

Keep in Touch

Got a story tip or a question? Please send it along.

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